Dame Margaret Bazley has released a report of her Independent Review of Russell McVeagh.
The review was requested by Russell McVeagh in February 2018 following claims that five summer clerks were sexually harassed over a three-week period in the summer of 2015/16 by a partner and solicitor from one team in the firm's Wellington office.
Dame Margaret was also asked to review any other incidents brought to her attention, the firm's framework of policies, standards and systems, and its culture.
The report makes a number of recommendations, which Dame Margaret says it has accepted.
"With the leadership of the current Board, I am confident it is well-placed to tackle the challenges ahead," she says.
Dame Margaret says she heard from more than 250 people in the course of her four-month inquiry. She says she formed several overarching impressions:
In the past Russell McVeagh had a "work hard, play hard" culture that involved excessive drinking and in some instances crude, drunken and sexually inappropriate behaviour. She says after the incidents the firm moved decisively to address these issues and began to change the culture.
In reviewing the firm's response to the incidents, she says she found failings in the firm's governance, structure, management, policies, standards, and systems, as well as the lack of a code of conduct. "These failings contributed to the poor management of the incidents of 2015/16. I found that there was no-one in charge in the Wellington office, the team within which the incidents occurred was out of control, and what was happening in the team was not noticed by the partners or brought to the attention of the Board."
As part of her broader review of the firm's culture, Dame Margaret says she was surprised to hear of pockets of bullying, poor work management practices resulting in excessive work hours for junior lawyers, and fear among lawyers and partners about the potential consequences of speaking out.
"A recent survey of all lawyers by the New Zealand Law Society revealed that bullying and harassment are problems across the entire legal profession," she says. "This does not minimise the reality of what has occurred at Russell McVeagh, but means the firm is not alone in needing to confront these issues."
Although nearly 30% of Russell McVeagh's partners are women and progress has been made with gender equality, Dame Margaret says many talented women still leave the firm rather than progressing to partnership. "This is disappointing and a big loss for the firm."
Cultural change of the magnitude contemplated by her review takes persistent and consistent effort to embed, Dame Margaret says.
"Building on the work the firm has already begun, it is imperative that the Board, Chief Executive, and every partner are committed to the proposed transformation of the firm's culture and that they have a 10-year plan to implement, monitor, and audit the change."